- Cold War on the Home Front: The Soft Power of Midcentury Design
Greg Castillo’s Cold War on the Home Front opens with a strategic pairing. The frontispiece to the Introduction is a reproduction of a 1940s U.S. propaganda poster depicting a confident couple, a white man and a white woman, holding hands as they stride forward atop a verdant hill. As four-engine bombers fly in formation overhead, a massive smoke-spewing factory sprawls into the distance. This is military-industrial power intended “to protect our way of life” through unbridled wartime production. On the opposite page, Castillo describes a fictitious bombing campaign imagined by an American sociologist in the early 1950s. In this “Operation Abundance,” U.S. bombers drop women’s nylons over the Soviet Union in hopes of subduing the new enemy with an impressive display of limitless postwar production. These two images represent a paradigmatic shift that is critical to Castillo’s book: no sooner was the Arsenal of Democracy retooled for peacetime prosperity then it was redeployed to fight communism with consumerism in the 1950s. The uses to which expanding consumerism were put in the political battle of wills between the communist East and the capitalist West in the decades after World War II is the fascinating subject of Cold War on the Home Front. The title refers not to civilian populations during the prolonged engagement but to the way agents on both sides of the conflict drafted the house, figuratively and literally, into their respective campaigns of psychological warfare. Despite this titular pun, as Castillo’s book makes clear, these operations were utterly serious attempts to ensure that the war stayed cold despite the considerable heat generated by the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Castillo contributes to a growing body of scholarship that examines how architecture and design advance political ideology and are, in turn, shaped by its strictures. While volumes such as Jane Loeffler’s The Architecture of Diplomacy (1999) and Annabel Jane Wharton’s Building the Cold War (2001) have looked at how buildings (embassies and hotels, respectively) displayed American power and prestige at midcentury, Castillo usefully looks both east and west, paying particular attention to the ways in which communism and capitalism manipulated cultural perceptions and realities through the promotion of domestic design and Wohnkultur via state and corporate sponsorship of manufacturing and display. The benefits of this dual perspective are evident throughout the book’s seven chapters, as for example in “Stalinism by Design” and “People’s Capitalism” (chapters 4 and 5), which explore the political and aesthetic rhetoric of hard-line antimodernists in East Germany and hard-line anticommunists in the United States. Taken together, these provide the reader with simultaneous portraits of two cultural moments that are as instructive in their surprising similarities as in their familiar differences.
Cold War on the Home Front covers some of the same territory as Cold War Kitchen (edited by Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann, 2008), to which Castillo contributed an essay on “The American ‘Fat Kitchen’ in Europe.” Both books deal with the impact of American domestic technology on Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, and both analyze the famous kitchen debate between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev as a key stratagem of Cold War gamesmanship. Importantly for Castillo in the present volume, the confrontation, which took place in front of a model kitchen at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, was merely the 107 endgame, only the [End Page 107] most iconic in a series of ideological gambits that amounted to a consumer goods parallel to the USA–USSR arms race.
The shift “from military hardware to modern housewares,” as Castillo memorably puts it in the Introduction (viii), was a means of exercising the “soft power” of the book’s subtitle. This term, coined by the political scientist Joseph Nye in his book Bound to...